Chapter XVI.

3 May

Lea awakened while it was still dark. As she ate a quick breakfast in the kitchen, she was startled to see her father enter the large room from the main hallway.

He stepped over to her, his eyes red with sleepless worry and anxiety.

“I am sorry we ever came to this cursed country,” he began in a sore voice. “It was a big mistake to become involved with this family. We did not at all act wisely by traveling here. Things have not turned out the way that I anticipated before we arrived.”

Lea looked up at him with sympathy. “You haven’t bought the leaf collection yet, have you, father?” she inquired in anxious reaction.

Gimel Vexa bent his head closer to his seated daughter and took her hand in his, looking her straight in the eye.

“This planter is a conscienceless swindler,” he said in a low whisper. “He intends to hold out for all he can get from me. I was foolish to come here at all. Bringing you here was a stupid mistake, my dear. I was unable to foresee the way that I was going to be treated. But who could have anticipated such an unscrupulous operator as I came across here?”

The two stared into each other’s eyes for a brief time.

“We cannot leave until Thav is safely freed, father. But once that goal is achieved, then it can be back home that we go. There will be nothing to hold us in this forsaken land. It will be back to Landia for us.”

His brown eyes grew darker and larger.

“Get her back, Lea,” he murmured. “But keep your eyes open. Be careful in all that you say or do. Our host is not to be trusted in any way. That’s the lesson I have learned from my painful experience dealing with him.

“He will not go down in the price he wants for the leaf collection he I inherited from the previous generation. I have reached a dead end in trying to negotiate a price fair to both of us. All my offers to him have been unsuccessful.

“He wants the maximum possible, with no thought of your and my interest, Lea.”

Gimel leaned forward and kissed her on the brow. Then he made his way out of the kitchen.

Khaph Daleth swung his enormous body up onto the biggest of the horses in the stable, then directed the animal forward with the reins he held tightly in his large hands. At the stable door, the overseer braked the steed to a halt.

Mem Samekh stepped out of the darkness and addressed the overseer.

“Are you ready to set off?” he asked.

“Yes, I am, sir,” answered the merciless manager of the latifundium.

“Remember, she must not see or hear you. That is most necessary in this operation. You must trail her as if you are invisible to the human eye.”

The horse gave a snort. Khaph pulled a rein, commanding the animal to keep quiet and still.

“I’ll get a head start and wait for Miss Vexa to catch up to me. Then, I can follow her from inside the forest. There will be only a little distance between us. But I will be able to see everything she does, and where she is in reality headed.”

“You believe that the horse can trail the drosky undetected?” asked the Master.

‘Yes, if I keep it always in sight.”

Mem glanced at the back of the villa for a second. “You had better start before it becomes too late.”

The rider gave a nod, then signaled the steed to proceed onto the road that led to the river landing. He kept the pace slow but steady.

Thav had nearly finished eating breakfast when Yod Teth entered the hut.

“Good morning,” he greeted her, approaching the table where she set down the cup of theobromine that she was holding.

The captive looked at him with blank blue eyes. “Any word from my brother?” she inquired without fanfare, causing him to give her a fixed, questioning look.

For several moments, the two stared at each other without embarrassment or inhibition.

“Word has arrived that someone is coming this morning to see you and verify your state of health,” quietly announced the prisoner’s captor.

Thav suddenly frowned. “I expected my brother to be suspicious,” she muttered as if to herself alone.

“What will you tell the agent about your treatment? Has it been cruel or painful?”

She glanced at the cup on the rattan table top, then met his gaze.

“I have been somewhat surprised by the behavior I have encountered here.”

Yod smiled at her. “We are not the savages the planters like to make us. Varzeans are as civilized as the Tochian invaders who took our forest away. Our morality is the result of the ages we have lived here in the forests. We remain close to the trees from which we came. Our ties of origin are never cut or lost.”

“There were no invasions by our ancestors,” angrily retorted the prisoner. “All of the plantations were legally purchased. The government of Tochsylvania granted title deeds to each and every settler who came here. Everything was legal. There was no violence involved. Your folk have no justifiable right to complain. Our ancestors were not evil criminals. They acted in a moral and legal manner at the beginning, when they first came to this area’s forest. Their descendants have nothing to be ashamed of.”

“But your invasion was wholly wrong. The forest has always been ours. No one from the outside had the right to sell or buy it. What happened was nothing more than robbery. All that we demand is the return of what was stolen from us, nothing more than that.”

Thav, realizing that argument was futile, changed the subject.

“How are the three tribers that you rescued from the hoosgow?”

“Fully recovered. They are grateful to you for your efforts to alleviate their hunger and thirst. It was a good, merciful deed. We are all thankful for what you did, Miss.”

She looked away from him. “I did not like the way our overseer was treating these men. It was horrible. Our latifundium should never have been run that way. There was unmerciful cruelty applied upon the people working for us.”

“You are the first and only Tochian I have ever heard say such a thing,” he murmured in a low tone.

She turned her face to him again.

“Our two peoples really know little of each other,” she mused aloud but to herself. “You do physical labor for us, but that is all that we see. We are two groups of strangers who mostly ignore each other. Both sides live in ignorance of the other.”

“I have had bad experiences with Tochians all my life,” revealed the dacoit. “My mother and father were forced to work on a forest latifundium, she as a house servant, he as a logger. It was a terrible existence. Each tree that the tribers felled certainly contained a tarva. Do you know what that is?”

“Yes,” she answered him. “That is what the tribers call the spirit, the soul of an individual. It becomes enclosed within a tree after death. That is where it finds a final state of rest.”

“As well as the tarvas of the yet unborn. Those awaiting embodiment exist inside trees also. They wait there until the moment of birth arrives. The tree is their first and original home.”

“Do your people still hold to such odd beliefs?” she heedlessly inquired.

All of a sudden his carbonado eyes flared with fire. “How can we ever forget what our fathers taught us, what they themselves learned from their ancestors?” he challenged her. “From early childhood, it is instilled in our minds and memories. It lies at the core of the life we lead as Varzeans. The idea of the tarva makes us what we are. We would be something else, not Varzeans, should we lose our belief in the tarva. That is the central factor in how we lead our lives.”

“But what would your people do with the land if it should become yours once more?”

He pondered a moment.

“Return the forest to what it was before the predators and exploiters arrived here.” He paused, then continued with his own life story.

“My mother died when I was still a small child. It was very difficult for me, alone with my father on a plantation where we worked. Finally, he sent me to live with Rambatan, our kinsman. I was raised therefore by the chief of our tribe. I was quite fortunate to have had him teach me what I know.”

“He taught you how to become a dacoit?” she asked with wonder.

Yod gave her a broad grin. “That was not at all necessary. It was something I was, in a sense, born to. I took to it as if by unthinking instinct, as a bird takes to the air or a fish to the water of the river. Becoming a brigand was the fulfillment of my destiny, the role I was born to play. It was something prepared and waiting for me to take up.”

She gritted her teeth. “And it leads to this: that I am now being held for ransom. I doubt that you will obtain any of your outrageous demands. It will never happen. My brother is not a coward or a fool. He will save me from the captivity you have thrown me in.”

He moved a step closer.

“How do you think it will end?” asked Yod in an almost abstract manner.

Thav stared at him with hostility. She was about to predict his capture and execution, but suppressed any such statement, fearing to provoke his anger and enmity.

“I don’t know,” the hostage replied. “I really cannot say.”

Neither of them took the risk of saying anything further.

Yod turned around and left the hut without a word more to her.

Thav watched him disappear with her thoughts unsettled and unclear.


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